David Foster Wallace’s first novel The Broom of the System obsesses over language, words, storytelling and what it might mean to have our lives circumscribed in another person’s narrative. Hatchette Audio’s new audiobook version of Broom highlights the strength of Wallace’s dialogue, a feature of his writing perhaps overlooked, or at least overshadowed, by his complex diction and syntax and his innovative narrative structures. The Broom audiobook features the considerable talents of reader Robert Petkoff, who brings life to its many characters like protagonist Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman, a switchboard operator looking for her grandmother (and namesake) in the weird nooks and crannies of Wallace’s fictional Cleveland. Gramma Lenore (grammar Lenore; lost Lenore) is a former pupil of Wittgenstein, a conceit that allows Wallace to run wild with his own philosophical-linguistic concerns. I first read Broom as an undergrad–this was almost 15 years ago now–and I was pretty soaked in post-structuralist philosophy at the time, at least enough to think I was getting what many of Wallace’s mouthpieces were saying. There’s an obsession with Self and Other and whatever membrane might keep them separate; there’s the paranoia that language dictates our lives; there’s a sense that the postindustrial landscape has led to the need to engender new means of communion. Politicians create the Great Ohio Desert–or G.O.D. (subtle, I know) as a place for spiritual quests; psychiatrists prescribe bizarre ritual theaters for families to produce in front of a recording of a TV audience; a drugged bird develops speech abilities and is mistaken for a miracle. Broom is a dizzying satire of modernity, or more properly, postmodernity (the book was first published in 1987 but set in 1990).
Journeying through the book years later is a new experience, especially in light of how much Wallace and his literary followers have remapped the terrain of fiction. Many of Broom‘s experimental innovations, like the incorporation of TV transcripts, scholarly articles, medical documents, and other “found footage” are so normalized in contemporary fiction as to be almost clichéd in 2010. While these moments are never glaring or gauche in Broom, their inclusion lacks the finesse that Wallace would later demonstrate in Infinite Jest. Similarly, Wallace’s characters in Broom are too cartoonish to connect with. Read aloud, their punning names become a cavalcade of groans:Wang-Dang Lang, Peter Abbott, Candy Mandible, Judith Prietht, Biff Diggerance, and so on, as if Wallace can’t help himself. The Pynchonesque goofiness gets in the way of the reader-writer relationship that Wallace ultimately wants, the Wittgensteinian language game that would allow for identification beyond words. Purposeful bathos is still bathos. Lenore is an engaging character but, as she frequently worries and suspects, she is just that, a character, never transcending the page like Don Gately of Infinite Jest. But it’s cruel and stupid to fault Broom for not being Infinite Jest, especially when Broom is such a rewarding novel. Published when Wallace was just 24, it shows the grand strains of First Novel Syndrome, of a genius trying to push out too many ideas, too many characters, too many philosophical riffs at once. While Infinite Jest is hardly restrained, it shows Wallace’s powerful control over Too Much; it converts Too Much into Not Enough, into Give Me More.
The highlight of Broom is in its storytelling, in its capacity to explode clichés and expose the truth and energy stored within them. Rick Vigorous, Lenore’s would-be beau with literary aspirations, repeatedly shares stories with Lenore (and us, of course). They can be silly and maudlin and mawkish and downright awful, but also inspiring and sad and horrific, all at the same time, and Wallace engineers and comments on these stories (and the other stories that populate the book) in a way that somehow breaks with or goes past the postmodern tradition he’s otherwise relatively beholden to in Broom. And while Wallace’s first novel never achieves the exquisite sadness of Infinite Jest (although it would clearly like to), it does share the same rap-session humor, the same intimate narrative voice that welcomes the reader to laugh, to ponder, to play the game. Recommended.